Solving the dual crises of COVID-19 and climate change
We need a Green New Deal now more than ever to address the short and long term crises our country is facing together.
As a climate activist, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about a global crisis that would upend the world.
I pictured a planet ravaged by floods, superstorms, and catastrophic fire. I imagined a global economy disrupted by food shortages and the devastating costs of climate-caused disasters. I questioned the ability of societies to respond to forced migration and climate refugees, the increasing loss of homes and livelihoods. I knew that climate change would be the defining global crisis of my lifetime. I just hadn’t really expected there would be another.
The moment I got the first news notification about COVID-19 on my phone back in January — ‘Officials report outbreak of highly contagious virus in Wuhan City, China’ — my stomach dropped.I remembered the devastating Ebola outbreak, the terror and loss from avian flu and SARS. But those outbreaks had been contained, I told myself. This would be the same. I live in the Bay Area, working in clean energy research and organizing in my free time with the Sunrise Movement. A virus in Wuhan City, China seemed so far away. I put my phone down and went back to work, dismissing the strange feeling in my gut that something about this was different.
A mere two months later, the entire world is now reeling from the new strand of the coronavirus and the dangerous disease it causes. World governments have varied in their response, but most have now enacted unprecedented measures in an attempt to slow transmission of the highly contagious virus — including travel bans, school and business closures, and orders to physically distance from others for the foreseeable future.
This is a moment of great uncertainty, fear, and sorrow. Global stock markets have seen huge declines since the outbreak began, as multiple industries around the world grind to a halt and as trade and manufacturing slows. The world’s economy is projected to grow at its slowest rate since 2009, and experts predict the unemployment rate could skyrocket to 30 percent by the end of the second quarter, which starts next week. A global recession that will rival the economic downturn during the 2008 financial crisis has been predicted to start this year.
This is also a moment of unprecedented opportunity. Our country will recover from this pandemic and the economic crisis it is causing — but we have to decide as a people what that recovery will look like. We can use this moment to lead the country out of difficulty in a direction that ensures a better future for our families, our country, and our planet. Or we can let the wealthy and powerful rebuild the same systems of inequality and environmental degradation that helped exacerbate it in the first place.
Nearly every aspect of our lives has been affected by the coronavirus. But although the societal and economic effects of coronavirus are severe, they are likely to be temporary. The existential threat posed by climate change, on the other hand, will continue to worsen. Responding to this moment as a movement requires us to understand the link between these crises — and how by responding to one, we can help solve the other.
In many ways, the COVID-19 crisis is a wake up call for how devastating the effects of the climate crisis might be.
The climate crisis has far-reaching impacts on the natural world that is putting key social and economic systems at the risk of collapse. ( Image source: edie newsroom)
The link between climate change and COVID-19 may not be obvious at first. Though climate change has been declared a global emergency, the world has largely failed to respond in the same way it has to the COVID-19 crisis. While the effects of climate change are also devastating, they are somewhat slow-moving, allowing us to psychologically adjust even as the situation worsens, making it feel like less of a threat. In contrast, the visible effects of coronavirus escalate every day, increasing our understanding of the risks involved.
Despite this difference in our perception of risk, the climate crisis threatens the very same things that are threatened by COVID-19 — the health and safety of our loved ones and our communities and the stability of our economic and political systems. If left unmitigated, climate change may even exacerbate both the likelihood and severity of future pandemics.
A warmer climate can dampen immune responses and changing seasonal patterns make it harder to predict the impact of viruses. Viruses that originate in animals and insects (including COVID-19, Zika, Ebola, SARS and MERS) can also be expected to spread as global warming drastically alters natural migratory patterns and human-caused habitat destruction forces wildlife into closer contact with human beings. Climate change contributes to the further spread of airborne diseases that travel great distances by changing weather patterns. And there is very real potential for melting permafrost to unleash terrible pathogens into the world, some of which may be even more deadly than what we’re facing now.
In addition to increasing our vulnerability to pandemics, the main causes of climate change — extracting and burning fossil fuels for energy — pose their own significant public health risks. Extracting fossil fuels leads to chronic health disorders in workers, in addition to releasing toxins into the air and water. 12.6 million Americans are exposed daily to toxic air pollution from active oil and gas wells, and air pollution from burning fossil fuels causes 8.8 million deaths each year. These impacts are disproportionately concentrated in communities of color, making them more vulnerable to the risk of respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19.
Climate change is also likely to disrupt the global economy on a scale equal to or worse than what we’re seeing with the COVID-19 crisis. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report 2020, which surveyed 750 financial and economic experts worldwide, climate-related issues dominated all of the top-five long-term economic risks in terms of likelihood and impact. The Department of Defense calls climate change a ‘threat multiplier’ because its impacts increase the risk of political and economic instability, leading to a higher chance of global conflict.
Responding to the COVID-19 crisis is also an opportunity to make us more resilient to the threat of climate change.
This is a huge political moment. Responding to COVID-19 and the disruptions it has caused will require a monumental response from federal and state governments. We need a mass mobilization of resources that can regenerate our economy while also ensuring a just recovery that supports the most vulnerable among us first. To have any chance of withstanding the global crises to come, we need a stimulus and relief package that addresses the intersecting issues of environmental degradation and economic inequality. And that’s exactly what a Green New Deal can provide.
The Green New Deal is not just a response to climate change. It is a crucial step to ensuring that we build an economy that works for everyone — prioritizing investments that put people back to work in high-paying union jobs, rebuilding our country in a way that ensures it can continue to thrive for generations to come. This begins with a just recovery, putting those who have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis (including workers who have spent their lives working in the fossil fuel industry and are now facing severe layoffs) at the front and center.
It also represents a chance for our country to enact a massive (and long overdue) build-out of renewables and energy storage, focused on distributed generation, that will help us better withstand the climate crisis while also putting people back to work. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps employed hundreds of thousands of Americans working together to pull our country out of an equally devastating economic downturn. Now is a perfect time to build out a similar program, providing livable wages and benefits for people to help build affordable housing, improve green infrastructure in local communities, and retrofit and electrify old buildings.
To ensure that our country doesn’t backslide into an unsustainable dependency on fossil fuels, the climate movement and its allies must work to ensure that our lawmakers don’t cut any breaks for polluting industries. Money from government bailouts should serve fossil fuel workers, not their executives. Any government aid to other sectors that contribute to climate change — airlines and cruise lines, for example — should come with conditions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (e.g., new efficiency rules, speeding up the retirement of older, more polluting crafts) and increase sustainability practices. This is an precedented moment for lawmakers to redefine ‘business as usual’ in some of our most polluting sectors. We can’t let them miss it.
And just like the climate crisis, our response to COVID-19 must acknowledge that not all communities are impacted the same way. The coronavirus has exposed the inequities in our socioeconomic systems, the weakness of our safety systems, and the tendency to leave the most vulnerable exposed to the greatest risk. Communities made vulnerable through practices of racial segregation, forced migration, and other forms of oppression and discrimination should be the first to receive economic relief and the resources they need to rebuild their communities. The Green New Deal is about rebuilding our economy in an equitable way, and it is our job as a movement to make this a key tenet in responding to both COVID-19 and the climate crisis.
Even at the personal level, this moment has shown us there is power and impact to be made in how we respond individually. Physical distancing has forced millions of us to significantly change our lifestyles and consumption habits. This is really, really difficult — and it can be a really good thing for our planet. Many of the practices people are enacting around the world in response to COVID-19 — shopping local, buying and wasting less, restricting how often we travel — are ones that climate activists have been advocating for a long time. Suddenly, millions around the world have altered their daily routines in ways that seemed unthinkable mere weeks ago. Though motivated by tragic circumstances, this rapid shift is a testimony to people’s ability to act in the interest of the collective good. It’s also proof that individual actions and consumption patterns do matter — they scale up to powerful, transformative social change.
I can certainly acknowledge that these changes were not wanted, and we will all experience them differently based on our personal circumstances. But for those to whom this represents a slight difficulty (rather than a devastating consequence), perhaps there is room to find some value in these new changes. Spending time close to home may help us get to know our neighbors and local business owners, how to show up in new ways for our communities. We may start thinking more carefully about how much food we buy, what we use it for, and whether we let it go to waste. Perhaps we finally take up gardening, start growing our own food, and become more resilient to any future disruptions to global supply chains.
For me, this time is teaching me to find new appreciation for a slower pace of life: long, aimless walks through a deserted neighborhood; the sound of birdsong. I know that the social disruptions caused by COVID-19 will eventually end. But the new habits and appreciations we form now could continue to last. And maybe that would be a good thing for the planet.
This is a painful moment for all of us. But our collective response to the dual crises of COVID-19 and climate change doesn’t need to be alienating or scary — it can be an opportunity to come together to fight for a livable present and livable future for us all.
Here are five things you can do right now to help make that a reality:
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